‘You Guys Are My Life’ … Ron Anderson’s Journey (Columbus and the Valley Magazine, January 2015)

by Jim Lynn

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‘You guys are my life’
Ron Anderson’s journey

By Jim Lynn

As Ron Anderson opens a rehearsal for the musical “Shrek,” his focus is not on the usual reminders about projecting or where the spikes are or some detail of musical cues. It’s not on when to watch out for prop movements or the need to keep the energy high on stage. But Anderson is not the usual theatre director.

He stands on the floor of the historic Springer Opera House, leans against the edge of the stage, faces the cast and crew sitting in front of him, and proceeds to preach.

“If you see someone backstage you don’t know, make a point to get to know them,” he implores. “That’s why we’re here.” It’s the sermon the almost-minister has been preaching continuously during his 18 years in Columbus. Ron Anderson is all about bringing people together.

“That’s why I do theatre,” he said in one of a series of discussions this fall. “It’s an excuse to create community.”

Anderson, at age 62, announced in September that this summer’s Springer Theatre Academy would be his last. He wanted to spend more time with wife Debbie and son Max, who is autistic and will graduate this year from high school. “It’s just time,” he said.

The news made for a sad day. Anderson has become over the last two decades a larger-than-life father figure and mentor to thousands of children – both current students and alumni – who make up the tight-knit Academy family. He has undoubtedly done more to grow the arts in the region than any other individual in recent years.

But in a far more jolting moment a month later, he quietly let students and parents know he has late-stage pancreatic cancer. He was not aware of the cancer when he announced his retirement. Just stomach pain, he thought. But now, instead of Pepto-Bismol, he was facing hurried-up chemotherapy. In a blink of an eye, his plans for his retirement years were torpedoed, and the children and teens who idolize him were without warning crushed by an avalanche of grief.

The news turned the Springer upside down. At a meeting of his Student Advisory Board, Anderson spoke in unvarnished terms to the teen-agers, using the same soft yet confident, melodic cadence that has become his signature. The voice is consistent, whether he’s preaching to the cast before rehearsal, giving one of his famous “Ron talks” to a child who’s had a bad day (“What are you doing well, and what can you do better?”), or reading the departing essays of graduating seniors at the Academy’s annual awards banquet.

“The Academy will be OK. You will be OK,” he said, forcing a smile. “… We are all a part of a community. And there is no stronger, closer, more caring, more supportive community than the one that calls itself Springer.” It was not a throw-away line. Anderson knew the sentiment was genuine because he created it.

The news spread rapidly, mostly person to person. Hundreds of students were suddenly joined in another Anderson-inspired community, but it was one of consoling hugs. They covered the sidewalk in front of his home with messages of love written in chalk. They covered social media with photos of coffee mugs (#ronstrong), a tribute to one of Anderson’s famous habits (always make coffee with two filters).

Anderson’s life will have left an indelible imprint on the Academy students. His impact on the arts has by any account been immeasurable.

“By helping the Springer shift its focus to children and families, Ron has really rearranged the molecules of the entire organization,” said Paul Pierce, the Springer’s director and who has known Anderson since college. “Today, the Springer’s audience is four times bigger than it was in 1996, and it is definitely younger. That bucks the graying trend at every other theatre in America.”

Audience development is a byproduct of Anderson’s work in theatre. But his mission has been developing a community, giving young people a place to feel part of something larger, more significant. It was his “life skills through stage skills” approach to theatre education, and it’s the way he directed plays like “Shrek,” the surprisingly popular, not-really-for-children Broadway musical.

“I’ve tried to create an environment where people feel that they belong, that they’re wanted, needed,” he said during a rehearsal break. “That environment makes the victories sweeter and the challenges bearable. That’s what I do, and it has to include the cast and the crew as well.”

“Shrek” was indeed, though unintentionally, the perfect production to be Anderson’s last. The story of disparate characters finding commonalities and finding a place to belong is a clear metaphor for the driving philosophy behind Anderson’s entire career.

“They all are characters looking for something to belong to, and that’s what everyone wants anyway,” he said. “The show was about something. It’s a show that establishes a community. It’s about being who you are and embracing who you are and discovering who you are.”

In the Academy, Anderson created a place for gifted students, students with an innate talent for acting and students who just feel they need a safe space to express themselves. Some are naturally shy, others outgoing; some interested in theatre, others not. But Anderson has made the Academy a home for anyone who wants to be there.

Theresa Garcia Robertson is an Academy alumna and now a congressional aide. “I was 10 years old,” she said, recalling her first day at the Springer in precisely the same way that so many others have. “I was nervous, but this really tall guy in a gray t-shirt walks up and says, ‘Hi, I’m Ron.’ Even at 10, that brief introduction impacted me so much…. He has been the real consistent voice of reason in my life.”

Anderson’s notion of children’s theatre was an interpretation of his times, being of the Kennedy generation and its call to service. For Anderson, it wasn’t the Peace Corps, and it wasn’t ultimately the ministry, despite serious but brief consideration. For him, it’s been a career of helping children develop both confidence and a passion for caring about those around them.

Born in Macon, Anderson’s father was a forester, working in tree management for Armstrong Flooring. His mother was a kindergarten teacher and homemaker. Both are now deceased. “She had an incredible love of children, and I got more than a little of my curiosity and love of service from her,” he said. From his father, focus and organization. Ron was one of three, with an older brother who went to Vietnam and has struggled with life as a result and a younger sister who enjoys a quiet life with her family in middle Georgia.

Anderson matured in a time when Americans were challenged to “ask not” what could be done for them but to find a focus on serving others. “I think a lot of us my age were inspired by John Kennedy,” he said. “…There is an obsession with service. I grew up with it and my friends grew up with it.”

Anderson grew up in the Baptist church, and the youth ministers he listened to were smart enough to define service broadly. “I always felt grateful that they never put parameters on service, that it never had to be in the professional ministry. I’m very grateful for that,” he said. “Service is service, whether in the military, as a school teacher, work in a church or a soup kitchen. The fact that you’re doing it is what counts.”

He is a 1970 graduate of Lanier High School, then a boys-only public school, where he was on the baseball team and played the drums. The band gave him a sense of rhythm, and the regimen of ROTC gave him appreciation of order and ritual. “I never knew then how important ritual would become,” he said.

Rituals have been a marker of Anderson’s ability to establish not just a theatre school, but an entire culture. There’s the well-known “Salutations,” the movement exercise to Pachelbel’s Cannon in D that salutes the institution of the theatre – its past and those who made it possible, the present and our commitment to tradition, and the future and its potential. The choreography, inspired by 1940s actor and director Michael Chekhov, is simple but highly emotive, as hundreds of teens on the Springer stage reach for the sky in unison to Pachelbel’s crescendo.

“Others did their work so we can do ours,” he often says. “And if we do our work well, others will follow.”

Then there’s the raucous “Steve Dance,” to the 1990 pop tune “Everybody dance now,” used to begin the day with energy or end a Springer season on an upbeat.

And “Acknowledgments” prompts students to say something good about a peer. In typical Springer exuberance, it’s usually that so-and-so was “just so awesome!” that day. The exercise forces students to take the focus away from themselves and instead look around to recognize what others are doing well.

Even his famous catch phrases – like the daily tagline, “Go away!” and his “close your eyes; it starts to the left” instruction (for new students learning “Salutations”) – have been etched into the Springer culture.

In his own youth, Anderson was determined that his life of service would not be defined by Vietnam. He headed north to the University of Georgia to avoid the draft. He thought he wanted to be a doctor, or maybe a teacher, or maybe…

He was not one to be reined in. Like many of his age and era, he was curious about everything, including the radical Students for a Democratic Society. The far-left SDS refused to refute socialism and was bitterly opposed to the war. Having “conversations” with SDS members at the same time he was vying for an Army scholarship at UGA might not have been the most pragmatic move. But he had no regrets, then or later.

The experience shaped his conviction that principles trump expediency, even at the risk of stubbornness. “I decided right then and there, if I get it, fine. If they don’t give it to me, then fine. They put me down as an alternate. But if they didn’t want me straight up, I wasn’t having it.”

He switched majors from chemistry to English because he found the students and faculty more interesting. After undergraduate school, he took a teaching job in Louisville (“Lewis-ville”), Georgia, a hardscrabble town of 2,400 people with fully a third of them living below the poverty line. The community is about an hour south of Augusta.

In one of life’s turning points, principal Frank Gordy came to him one day with the declarative, “Mr. Anderson, the drama club needs a faculty advisor.”

“I was coaching the baseball team, advising the 4-H club and the newspaper and the yearbook, so what was one more thing?” he recalled. A group of enthusiastic sixth graders wrote and produced a play about American history. “As a theme we focused on how people danced during each half-century period. I could not keep them out of the library, researching history and dance and period clothing.”

“I began to see something here,” he said. “We … presented the play to the entire school and the pride and sense of community and accomplishment was impressive.”

Blindly guiding a theatre program in a dusty small town inspired Anderson to return to UGA in 1976 to study theatre. He met music student Debbie Pritchett, and the two were married in 1978. But Anderson grew impatient with the school’s regimen and left the Masters of Fine Arts program one semester before graduating. ”Academic theatre just drove me up the wall.”

He jumped into his Volkswagen and headed for Spring Green, Wisconsin, a hamlet about the same size as Louisville. There he studied mime with Reid Gilbert, a Fulbright Scholar and later chair of Ohio State’s theatre program. “I had seen Marcel Marceau, and I knew that is what I wanted to do,” Anderson said.

Gilbert’s Valley Studio drew the attention of the New York Times for helping develop a growing audience for the seemingly obscure art form. Gilbert helped Anderson develop a love for “physical theatre” and theatre with a purpose. Both influences would be key to Anderson’s work in Columbus.

“It was all about movement, circus theatre, mime theater,” he said. “More traditional mime was akin to vaudeville with a political slant. They were story tellers and social critics. It’s gestural theatre. I use it all the time.” The eclectic Gilbert was also a Methodist minister and drew parallels between theatre and the church. “Both were ministries,” Anderson said, “selling the idea of community.”

In a brief interlude to life in the cheese state, Anderson came back to Athens and ran into Pierce. The duo inexplicably decided they’d stay and open a professional theatre. They started with a two-man performance of “The Duck Variations,” a work by playwright David Mamet about two older men sitting by a lake talking endlessly about ducks, and by extension, human existence. For lack of space they staged the play at a Unitarian church. “We lost our shirts on that,” Anderson quipped. He and Debbie raced back to Wisconsin; Pierce to Virginia and later the Springer.

Milwaukee’s Friends Mime Theatre hired both Ron and Debbie in 1979. Friends, now the Milwaukee Public Theatre, was “a politically themed, progressive theater, with actors, tumblers, jugglers, mask work, dance, and lots of songs,” Anderson said, including one memorable tune that parodied the virtues of nuclear power. He acted; Debbie wrote music.

It was there that he auditioned for a part in “Animal Farm,” produced by the First Stage children’s theatre in Milwaukee. He played the part of Squealer – “It’s good for us to suffer,” he recited dryly. The role in George Orwell’s classic would prove to be another turning point.

“For once, I was working for an audience that I cared about,” he said. After a later role as the father in “The Bridge to Terabithia,” Anderson was hired by First Stage as a movement teacher. Within two years he was directing the entire program, developing the theme he later brought to Columbus with its “life skills through stage skills” mantra.

“Occasionally, I would have a position open at the Springer and would check in with him to see if he might be interested,” Pierce recalled. “He would tell me how much he and Debbie loved Milwaukee and wouldn’t think of relocating.” But in 1996, Pierce flew to Milwaukee. “I was absolutely blown away by what I saw,” he said. Anderson accepted Pierce’s plea at last, and “since then, he has had an enormous impact on thousands of children’s lives.”

Although Anderson says some in Columbus, including some Springer board members, have over the years suggested that the Academy strive to be the best, most elite theatre school in the South, his goal has never been to turn out Tony Award-winning actors who can tell the critics that they got their start in Columbus, Georgia.

“No, we teach life skills through stage skills,” he says flatly. “That’s what we do.”

“It’s the idea that we challenge each other in the mornings and we salute each other in the afternoons,” Robertson said. “It’s not something that just happens. It’s who Ron Anderson is. We’re not here to produce a bunch of actors, but rather a bunch of confident doctors and dog catchers and architects.”

John Ammerman, an associate professor and director of Emory University’s theatre program, says Anderson’s model is “quite extraordinary.”

Anderson developed in his Springer students “a sense of optimism and acceptance and a unique willingness to honor someone else’s work,” Ammerman said. Students grow up to “look at the world in a very different way.”

Anderson’s persona, his theatre pedagogy, his approach that enforces both a thematic constant and a focus on each child (“How can we make tomorrow better for Jessica?”) have cultivated both a culture of community and a deep affection from his legion of pupils.

When Anderson discussed his condition with the student board, he proceeded to preach that Springer gospel, one more time. He talked about empathy and about soaking in all that life offers. “Take the message of the Springer out there,” he said, “into your lives and into your interactions with others.”

Pursue dreams, he urged. “Don’t spend too much time planning life, because plans are over-rated. Instead be ready for life to happen. I didn’t know what my life was going to be about until I started working in children’s theater.”

His voice trailed in the emotional weight in the room, and looking at the group so moved by his work and now so shaken by his prognosis, he provided an “acknowledgement” of his own.

“You guys are my life,” Anderson said.

Jim Lynn is an independent journalist and a former reporter and editor for Knight-Ridder newspapers. He is also a longtime Springer dad. Lynn36867@aol.com or about.me/jimlynn

Springer future

Ron Anderson wants the Springer Theatre Academy to expand in several general areas:

“We need a laser focus on serving the base,” he said. The program needs to expand its non-summer offerings, to include after-school programs, adult classes, and morning classes for young mothers.

The program also should expand to serve special needs children and at-risk youth. “We need to do what we do in community centers,” he said.

And finally, the theatre should create satellite programs in the region. Perhaps in Auburn, for example, in some sort of cooperative venture with Auburn University’s theatre program.

“The academy needs to push forward on all these fronts,” he said. “We need to influence people to see a bigger picture.”